Devil Spawn Is a Yawn

From pigtailed Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed to Damien, the brat with the squinty pinball eyes in The Omen and its many sandpaper sequels, the dreaded children of the damned always return to movie screens hoping to jazz up the box-office lull. With the slick, sometimes interesting but always predictable-and ultimately disappointing-thriller Godsend , welcome a new demon seed to the devil’s playground.

Grief-stricken high-school biology teacher Paul Duncan (Greg Kinnear) and his photographer wife Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) are beyond devastation when their 8-year-old son, Adam (newcomer Cameron Bright), is killed in a freak car accident. Before the funeral is even completed, they are approached at the graveside burial by a creepy genetic scientist who offers them an unconventional solution to their tragedy that could bring their son back and restore the quality of their family life. Dr. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro) promises that he can clone an identical child from a single cell. Despite the legal risks, physical dangers and moral doubts that must be considered, the Duncans move to the idyllic country village where Dr. Wells runs his top-secret Godsend Institute and turn themselves over to his scientific experiments with renewed hopes. And despite a lot of textbook talk about replications, DNA, implants and government-impounded stem-cell research, a gigantic hypodermic needle is injected into Jessie’s womb and a child is born. Eight years later, at the exact time the original Adam died, the new child starts having what Dr. Wells calls “night terrors.” Vile language erupts from his mouth. He makes dire predictions of potential disasters that are still to come. The burned face of another child appears in mirrors and glass window frames. Adam II does nasty things with knives, and a schoolmate ends up drowned in a nearby river.

With more foolishness than logic, Dad thinks the child is just remembering his former life, until he does some investigating, uncovers the ghastly history of Dr. Wells’ own life, and discovers something much worse. There was another child, all right, and a donor cell awaiting a birth mother, but it wasn’t Adam’s. Dr. Wells has opened the wrong Pandora’s box! When last seen, Dr. Wells, who has gone from suspiciously paternal and solicitous to totally insane, is ready to play God again, thumbing through the newspaper obituaries looking for new dead boys, and the Duncan family has moved away to a new town, where you can only guess what horrors will happen by the time Adam enters high school.

Described as “a cautionary tale for these challenging and morally ambiguous times,” Godsend begins promisingly (what grieving family, especially in a time of war when so many kids are being shipped home in body bags, doesn’t wish for a miracle of science that could bring their loved ones back the same way they were when they marched away?). Then Nick Hamm’s heavy-handed direction turns predictable, with spook-show jump-out-of-the-closet Halloween effects that only cheapen the potential chills. And the less-than-original script, by the less-than-inspired Mark Bomback (who is currently writing Die Hard 4 ), is peppered throughout with corny one-liners that invite more giggles than goosebumps. Gorgeous Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (gotta do something about that name, hon) gets to cry a lot, but she’s still mostly around for window dressing. Greg Kinnear is wholesome and believable as the distraught dad, but how does a biology teacher know enough about unraveling clues to become a cannier gumshoe than Sam Spade, Boston Blackie and Columbo put together? On his day off, yet? And Robert De Niro is always so weird that the first minute he appears, if you don’t find him more Mephistophelean than Dr. Kildare, you haven’t seen much of his work onscreen. The problem with today’s filmmakers is they can string you along up to a point, but then they lose interest midway and cannot figure out an ending. The Bad Seed , The Omen , Rosemary’s Baby and all of the other movies about the Devil as the Obstetrician from Hell, and the consequences of messing around with Mother Nature-they all had endings. Godsend just leaves you dangling, paving the way for a dreaded and unwelcome sequel.

Youthful Honesty

Youth should organize, like the Teamsters, and fight back. How does anyone old enough to steer a bicycle manage to sit through all of the mindless movie trash about kids glutting the market today? Fortunately, if you search a bit further, you can also find youth being depicted more touchingly in a few films of substance. The Mudge Boy , a graceful independent feature by writer-director Michael Burke, intelligently explores the unhappy world of a teenager too different from the rural claustrophobia of the Vermont farm community where he lives to ever fit in with the other kids his age. On a dairy farm in the White Mountains where the population is outnumbered by the livestock, how is a troubled, inquisitive, lonely and sexually confused teen going to find the care and compassion he needs to grow up sane-not to mention the answers to a lot of questions grown-ups take for granted, but teenagers find so complex and terrifying they can sometimes lead to suicide? This movie is like a series of heartbreakingly true little private therapy sessions that peel away the layers of loneliness in a mortgaged heart. I found it so unsparingly honest in its writing, acting and direction that I have not been able to shake it from my mind. It has a profound effect.

Emile Hirsch, the good-looking kid who played the conservative, troublemaking Republican Senator’s son who disrupted Kevin Kline’s prep-school classes in The Emperor’s Club , leading his classmates in the wrong directions by breaking all the rules, plays a totally opposite kind of kid in The Mudge Boy , the tragedy of a mama’s boy who can’t cope with his loneliness after his mother dies. Responsible, thoughtful, soft and craving affection, he is a boy named Duncan who was clearly born in the wrong place at the wrong time. A farm boy with no interest in the soil, Duncan is the all-American dream going haywire-so driven by the need for tenderness that he looks for it in all the wrong places. When his mother suffers a heart attack and falls off her bike on a country hill while delivering eggs, Duncan is left behind on their farm with an uncommunicative father (Richard Jenkins) who can’t begin to understand his own son’s peculiar behavior. With no siblings, he sleeps in his mother’s fur coat. With no one to talk to about his growing pains, Duncan works out his frustrations dancing and singing retro pop jingles he’s heard on his mama’s radio. In his depression and longing for affection, he develops an abnormal attachment to two fellow outcasts-the only white chicken on a farm of Rhode Island reds, and the son of a pig farmer named Perry (Thomas Guiry) whose tough, two-fisted masculinity and hard-drinking behavior is just a cover that hides the deep scars inflicted by his cruel, physically abusive father. When Perry shows up making a rough play for the local girls with a black eye or a smashed lip, Duncan is the only one who knows the truth. And when Duncan makes a desperate stab at intimacy by trying on his mother’s wedding dress for his friend, Perry not only does not laugh or punch him, but clumsily turns an awkward moment in the barn into an act of sexual conquest that will change both boys forever. Two stags of depth, sincerity and range who just happen to be trapped in the bodies of fawns, Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Guiry are both wonderful. The writing and direction are so self-assured and natural that I was practically never aware of actors playing roles and saying lines. Instead, I felt like I was watching real kids in trouble, desperately seeking knowledge and guidance through life’s most daunting emotional challenges without a compass to show them the way. Show some courage: Seek out this odd, affecting work of admirable maturity and human clemency. With so many cynical and mean-spirited movies of moral turpitude around, it’s reassuring to see something valid and venerable for a change. To have come along at a time of general despair and cinematic hopelessness, The Mudge Boy is as courageous as it is profound.

Spanish-Italian Thrill

Thank God for the occasional foreign film to keep us all from losing it at the movies in ways Pauline Kael never dreamed about. I’m Not Scared and Valentín are two new ones to applaud. In the Spanish-Italian co-production I’m Not Scared , director Gabriele ( Mediterraneo ) Salvatores plunges us into the rarefied world of a child surrounded by dangers beyond his comprehension that lead to an awakening beyond his experience. Haunting and suspenseful, it tells the story of 9-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who discovers a pit on the edge of the sun-bleached wheat fields near a deserted farmhouse where he finds a boy about his own age, blinded, clinging to life, near death from cold and malnutrition. A personal secret becomes a game, as he keeps the boy alive with scraps from his mother’s kitchen, trying to understand the sense of alienation, like something in an adventure-book plot. Then reality breaks through. Michele shockingly overhears his dad and his cronies discussing the kidnapping of a rich child in Milan. Always quiet and introspective by nature, Michele now grows suspicious and frightened. All of Italy is searching for the abducted boy. Michele knows where he is, and-as a boy who only meant to hide the thrill of his own private mystery-he suddenly knows his own father is a criminal waiting for a ransom.

In this moral dilemma, Michele faces panic, fear and eventually courage. Told entirely from the child’s perspective, like the great British film The Rocking Horse Winner , the coming-of-age story line is infused with the sinister mood of a thriller. Layers of suspense build progressively as the child moves from one level of reality to the next. With economic storytelling unpolluted by technology and special effects, and particularly fine performances from the boy, the parents and the criminals they pass off as house guests, I’m Not Scared is rich with kind of insight that is sadly missing in 19 out of 20 American movies today.

Argentine Gem

Valentín is a romantic movie from Argentina about a poor 8-year-old boy with a wealth of heart who plays Cupid with dramatic results. Obsessed with astronauts, rockets and space ships, Valentín lives a dour life with his nagging grandmother (welcome back to the fabulous Pedro Almodóvar alumna, Carmen Maura). Valentín’s life is not a bundle of childhood chuckles: His mother disgraced the family by running off with a cab driver, his father discards one flashy mistress after another but rarely visits his own son, and Valentín himself is a nerdy, gawky pelican of a kid with eyeglasses thick as the bottoms of beer bottles. But even though he looks like a nearsighted gnome, Valentín is the eternal optimist. He has hope for everyone and wishes they’d all use their time better and not take happiness for granted. When the grandmother dies suddenly and fate steps in to deprive him of a place to live, Valentín takes it upon himself to find a new home, be older and more useful, and construct another family he can call his own by playing Cupid to the two adults who have always treated him best-one of his father’s nicest ex-girlfriends and the lonely musician neighbor who gave him piano lessons.

And so a wry and magical story evolves about a little boy looking for a purpose in his life, not realizing he is in danger of losing the innocence and fun of childhood in the bargain. As the 8-year-old centerpiece of this delightful movie, an animated bug named Rodrigo Noya keeps the action moving and the smiles widening from start to finish. Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Agresti, who also plays the good-natured but irresponsible father, Valentín gently and observantly captures the moment-to-moment naturalism of the way people speak and think, regardless of the language barrier. It’s funny, gentle and utterly captivating.